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Six researchers who are shaping the future of artificial intelligence

As artificial intelligence (AI) becomes ubiquitous in fields such as medicine, education and security, there are significant ethical and technical challenges to overcome.

CYNTHIA BREAZEAL: Personal touch

While the credits toStar Wars drew to a close in a 1970s cinema, 10-year-old Cynthia Breazeal remained fixated on C-3PO, the anxious robot.

“Typically, when you saw robots in science fiction, they were mindless, but in Star Wars they had rich personalities and could form friendships,” says Breazeal, associate director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “I assumed these robots would never exist in my lifetime.”

A pioneer of social robotics and human–robot interaction, Breazeal has made a career of conceptualizing and building robots with personality. As a master’s student at MIT’s Humanoid Robotics Group, she created her first robot, an insectile machine named Hannibal that was designed for autonomous planetary exploration and funded by NASA.

Some of the best-known robots Breazeal developed as a young researcher include Kismet, one of the first robots that could demonstrate social and emotional interactions with humans; Cog, a humanoid robot that could track faces and grasp objects; and Leonardo, described by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in New Jersey as “one of the most sophisticated social robots ever built”.

In 2014, Breazeal founded Jibo, a Boston-based company that launched her first consumer product, a household robot companion, also called Jibo. The company raised more than US$70 million and sold more than 6,000 units.

In May 2020, NTT Disruption, a subsidiary of London-based telecommunications company, NTT, bought the Jibo technology, and plans to explore the robot’s applications in health care and education.

Breazeal returned to academia full time this year as director of the MIT Personal Robots Group. She is investigating whether robots such as Jibo can help to improve students’ mental health and wellbeing by providing companionship.

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